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Civ 5 designer Jon Shafer opens up about the personal struggles that delayed his next game

He says At the Gates suffered due to his battle with ADHD and prescription drugs

Jon Shafer photo Jon Shafer
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Since the release of Sid Meier’s Civilization 5 in 2010, designer Jon Shafer has made more headlines for what he hasn’t accomplished than for what he has. Now, in a deeply personal essay, he has opened up about what’s been holding him back. The piece comes on the eve of the release of his next game, At the Gates, which is bound for Steam on Jan. 23.

At the Gates is a novel strategy game that began life as a Kickstarter project, where it raised more than $100,000. In a feature story from 2013, Polygon called Shafer and his collaborators “superheroes.” As it turns out, Shafer himself was anything but.

After Civilization 5, Shafer moved to Michigan to work at Stardock. In his essay he explains that his own work style wasn’t a good mesh with that company and, eventually, he became a contract employee. Around the same time Shafer was also diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

I saw a doctor, who diagnosed me with adult ADHD and prescribed me [stimulants] to help manage the condition. To my surprise this medication actually worked — and instantaneously. I was more productive, happier, and could now see my goals in crystal clarity. I’d finally mitigated my main weakness. There was nothing that could stop me now.

Things were going unbelievably well, but everyone has those days where they don’t get quite as much done as they would like to, where try to sneak in a little bit more work at the end of the day. To facilitate this I started occasionally take an extra pill in order to knock out those last few things so I could call it a day, relax, and move on to other things. It’s not like anyone follows prescriptions perfectly anyways and things turn out fine. Plus, not being the most obedient fellow is part of what makes me unique and good at what I do. Ask for forgiveness, not permission, right?

Over the years, however, his relationship with those stimulants became the source of physical and emotional challenges. He describes working around the clock, at one time for 110 hours straight, without taking breaks for personal activities or even sleep. Eventually, it led to a complete breakdown, he says.

“I was spinning in circles,” Shafer writes. “Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. I would walk to the 24-hour grocery store at 3 am in order to buy groceries and cook fancy pasta for myself. Time lost its meaning. The external world lost all meaning. I was spinning, and spinning.

“My mind had melted.”

Shafer eventually moved to Sweden to take a job at Paradox, but sadly that didn’t work out either. The good news is that he has found his way back from the brink. He says that he’s cut stimulants out of his life and lost more than 60 pounds, and is generally taking much better care of himself. To hear him tell it, he’s turning his love of strategy toward good, optimizing his self-care like you or I might play one of his games. Every day for him is just one more turn.

“My past will always be a part of me,” Shafer concludes. “It’s not going anywhere, and certainly won’t now that I’ve shared it with everyone. But I think it makes me a stronger person. Hopefully a better person. I now know what it feels like to have nothing, to be nothing. And I want do do what I can to give back, now that I feel like I have something [to] draw upon once again.”

The essay itself is a remarkable piece of writing, and well worth your time. It’s important that we all realize that the people who make the games we love are flesh and bone. They’re certainly not superheroes, but they’re not lines of code either.

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